In Its Third Season, ‘The Leftovers’ Makes Agnosticism Thrilling

Lindelof and some incredible TV directors have made a masterful thriller from the structure of their characters' own uncertainty.

Every so often while watching The Leftovers, you’ll think, “Well, they’re going to have to explain this.” That line of thinking is usually both unavoidable and futile. The HBO drama understands that agnosticism is a propelling force not only for its most interesting characters, but also for its audience. To enjoy The Leftovers is to hope something particular will be explained; forget that non-vague explanation scarcely occurs on this show; then realize it most certainly won’t occur here. Much of the series operates the way David Lynch might have wanted Twin Peaks to, before ABC demanded the disclosure of Laura Palmer’s murderer (and people started turning into doorknobs so they could be written off the show).

The third season, which premiered on Sunday, runs eight episodes; critics have been provided with seven. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if, to structurally tie together the concept, creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta simply withheld the final episode from everyone — so many of the show’s wild whims land just shy of their logical conclusion, leaving the viewer with a staggering case of existential blueballs. For a series structured around the end of the world, The Leftovers is one of the least teleological shows I can think of.

Paralleling the cavewoman prologue of Season 2, the new season opens on a historical narrative that maybe provides a cautionary tale, or perhaps a foil, for the now-religious quest of the contemporary characters. We see a family of Millerites — followers of the 19th century preacher whose prophetic emphasis on the Second Coming would spawn the 7th Day Adventist denomination — climb atop their thatched roofs wearing all white, awaiting the rapture on the date their preacher has predicted. It doesn’t happen. The preacher claims he made an error of calculation and changes the date on his handy rapture chalkboard. The family treks once again to the rooftop. Eventually, only the matriarch remains dedicated to climbing the roof and awaiting the Second Coming, while her family, having become disillusioned, abandon and deride her.

In real life, the Millerites who didn’t become Quakers or disavow claims of the Second Coming decided, after the date that was proclaimed the Great Disappointment, to continue believing that the Coming was coming — but that henceforth they wouldn’t set any dates, essentially sculpting a belief system that couldn’t easily be disproved over time. Some might see that as changing the rules to reinforce the structure of profound denial. Others, clearly, don’t. If these Millerites seem like extremists prone to flights of particular cultural absurdity, The Leftovers‘ main characters, who behave in far more out-there ways, are given such rich interiors that they never seem ridiculous. The show puts us so deeply into their contradictorily-believing mindsets that it’s all the viewer can do to throw up his hands and declare, “Yeah, maybe!”

Agnosticism/perpetual in-betweenness could be seen as boring or safe, but Lindelof (who’s also showrunner) and some incredible TV directors have made a masterful thriller from the structure of their characters’ own uncertainty, pulling them and us meticulously towards and away from plots that reveal alternating messages of atheism or zealotry — and then amount to nothing but a frustratingly brilliant in between. The opening sequence of the first episode says so much about what’s to come — but, like everything else, what it’s saying will likely remain mysterious until the end, if not beyond it.

Hilariously, a season in which we learn that the show’s protagonist, police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), may in fact be Jesus Christ — or that a certain bundle of mentally unreliable characters believe he is — began yesterday, on Easter. The show was once again trolling its audience: Are we in for a religious experience? A nihilistic cosmic joke? In Season 2we learned pretty unequivocally that Kevin is death-proof: He was killed a lot last season. When he was poisoned, he ended up in a generic hotel as an assassin who had to kill the little-girl version of his cosmic tormenter, the dead cult leader Patti (Ann Dowd). (It’s hard not to laugh at that sentence; wonderfully, the Leftovers relishes that fact.) When he was shot, he had to surrealistic-karaoke himself back to life.

This isn’t the type of show that could ever be explained away in a Shyamalanian “It was just people pretending to be living in the past and wearing a monster costume” twist. (Sorry for the spoiler, The Village virgins, but come on — you’re about a decade too late to a mediocre psychological thriller everyone forgot.) There’s no way in hell, or wherever else, that the event that started the series — the mysterious disappearance of 2% of the world’s population — will turn out to be just a bunch of people in different parts of the world secretly colluding to hide somewhere for 7 years.

Rather, The Leftovers absolutely gives into the supernatural: there’s stuff here that can neither be explained through logic, nor science, nor the close perspective of a character with mental illness. But to provide a map to its every supernatural source would also undercut the very thing that makes religion such a strong force for some people — while they’re following a prewritten dogma, so much of it is based on their own imaginations. Heaven has not, as far as I’m aware, been revealed to us all. God has not been revealed to us. Hell has not been revealed to us. The rapture has not been revealed to us. Everyone who chooses to believe has their own vision of these things — which is why Jesus sometimes appears on waffles.

In Season 3, even the most religious characters are transparent about their own uncertainty. In the first episode, pastor Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) foresees the potential end-times on the seven-year anniversary of the Sudden Departure. But here’s how he explains it: “What will happen on October 14, just a couple of weeks from now? Probably nothing. But just in case something does happen….” Similarly, when he reveals that he believes that, given Kevin’s penchant for resuscitation and trysts with some form of afterlife, Kevin may be Jesus, he equivocates: “I’m not saying you are, but the beard looks good on you.” Without saying much else (since Lindelof requested writers not spoil anything), I will say that these impulses about the Importance of Kevin Garvey, and the way he might tie into the predicted end-of-days, will guide the rest of the season.

Given the Season 3 prologue — about the mistaken Millerite rapture prophesies — we carry with us the skepticism that narrative promotes: are these characters plunging into a fabricated hysteria, their growingly outlandish beliefs simply reified onscreen as they become more and more removed from the world around them? (As per the Season 3 trailer, a large part of the season will see characters traveling to a remote part of Australia.) As Lars Von Trier’s explosive (yuk yuk) Melancholia often wondered, with its global apocalypse seen solely from one mansion: Is it objectively the end of the world, or are we just watching people create their own end, in the isolation of their minds?

Meanwhile, the more jaded, less spiritually inclined characters — Kevin’s ex-wife Laurie Garvey (Amy Brenneman) and new partner Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) — are, throughout the season, presented with a series of tests to their notions of what’s real. Nora’s job is to expose people fraudulently exploiting the Sudden Departure — and she’ll soon be mystified by a group she’s dead-set on exposing. Laurie, meanwhile, has married into a family that will prove to be much more open to spiritual potential than she is; but her attempts to explain away aspects of the unknown through psychology also wear thin.

Laurie is now running an operation with her new husband, John Murphy (Kevin Carroll), that mirrors a number of other potential tragedy exploiters we’ve seen on the show. The Sudden Departure has created a growing business of people who can somehow explain it all, or even perform miracles. The town of Jarden (also named Miracle), where the show’s main characters live, is home to a booming tourist industry that commodifies the town’s Departure-resistant properties as knick knacks. The first season saw a plot about a man named Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph), who claimed to be able to “hug the pain away.” In Season 2, a group of scientists pestered Nora by offering her tests to see if her particle makeup had something to do with the disappearance of her husband and two children. This season, Laurie and John commune with the dead on behalf of people desperate for answers — but really, Laurie sits upstairs and speaks to John via a headset while scrolling through dead people’s Facebook accounts. They don’t keep the money people give them; they do it because they see how freeing it is for people to have closure.

While Laurie doesn’t believe she’s actually contacting the dead — except through the weird graveyard of old social media — her desire to provide people with faux-spiritual closure doesn’t come from an insidious place. And so this very atheistic practice becomes simultaneously religious. Is Laurie not, herself, playing God, acting as an omniscient presence, peering down from above, and fixing people’s lives through the power of suggestion? In an equal-opposite vein, as an EW recap also pointed out, the first episode of the new season reveals that Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Meg (Liv Tyler) — extremists with the cult-like group the Guilty Remnant — were incinerated by a military drone, like a hand reaching down from above.

The opening sequence of the second season was set to a song whose chorus emphasizes the line, “I’ll just let the mystery be,” sung with a sly resolve. It was largely ironic: The show’s characters absolutely won’t let the mystery be. They’ll keep searching. But that search, it seems, will lead them ever deeper into the mystery, as everyone’s belief-oriented subjectivity challenges one another’s — while some potentially objective thing does or does not happen externally. Agnosticism here is not boring and equivocal. From Thomas Henry Huxley, the man who coined the word himself: 

Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.

He sounds like a great TV writer.